Liver Cancer Overview
What is liver cancer?
Cancer is made of changed cells that grow out of control. The
changed (abnormal) cells often grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. Cancer
cells can also grow into (invade) nearby areas. And they can spread to other parts
of the body. This is called metastasis.
The liver is a large organ that lies behind the ribs on the right
side of your body under your lungs. It helps break down and store nutrients such as
sugars, starch, fats, and proteins. It also makes clotting factors that keep you
from bleeding. One of the liver’s key jobs is to filter out toxins in the blood.
Liver cancer is cancer that starts in your liver. There are
different kinds of liver cancer, but the most common type in adults is called
hepatocellular carcinoma. It starts in the main liver cells called hepatocytes.
Who is at risk for liver cancer?
A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having
a disease. The exact cause of someone’s cancer may not be known. But risk factors
can make it more likely for a person to have cancer. Some risk factors may not be in
your control. But others may be things you can change.
The risk factors for liver cancer include:
Hepatitis B or C infection
Scarring of the liver (cirrhosis)
Food tainted with fungus called aflatoxin
Type 2 diabetes
Exposure to certain chemicals such as vinyl chloride
Long-term use of anabolic steroids
High levels of arsenic in your drinking water
Talk with your healthcare provider about your risk factors for
liver cancer and what you can do about them.
Can liver cancer be prevented?
Many liver cancers could be prevented by not exposing yourself to
known risk factors. Here are some things you can do that may lower your risk for
Don’t do things that increase your risk for hepatitis B or C
infection. This includes sharing needles with other drug users, having many sex
partners, and having unprotected sex.
Get the hepatitis B vaccine.
If you have hepatitis B or C, get treated.
Limit the amount of alcohol you drink.
Stay at a healthy weight.
Are there screening tests for liver cancer?
There are no regular screening tests for liver cancer in
people at average risk. Screening tests are done to check for disease in people
who don’t have symptoms.
If you have a high risk for liver cancer because of cirrhosis,
chronic hepatitis, or other reasons, talk with your healthcare provider about
regular testing for liver cancer. Blood tests, ultrasounds, or other imaging
tests can be used to look for early signs of liver cancer.
What are the symptoms of liver cancer?
Liver cancer often does not cause symptoms until it has grown
large. Common symptoms of liver cancer can include:
No desire to eat
Feeling full after eating only a small amount
Nausea or vomiting
A lump or mass in the upper-right side of your belly
Ongoing pain in the upper-right side of your stomach or the
right shoulder blade
Belly bloating or swelling
Enlarged veins on the belly
Yellow skin or eyes (jaundice)
Easy bleeding and bruising
Many of these may be caused by other health problems. But it’s
important to see a healthcare provider if you have these symptoms. Only a healthcare
provider can tell if you have cancer.
How is liver cancer diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will ask you about your health history,
symptoms, risk factors, and family history of disease. Your provider will do a
You may also have one or more of these tests:
After a diagnosis of liver cancer, you’ll likely need other tests.
These help your healthcare providers learn more about the cancer. They can help
determine the stage of the cancer. The stage is how much and how far the cancer has
spread (metastasized) in your body. It is one of the most important things to know
when deciding how to treat the cancer.
Once your cancer is staged, your healthcare provider will talk
with you about what the stage means for your treatment. Be sure to ask your
healthcare provider to explain the stage of your cancer to you in a way you can
How is liver cancer treated?
Your treatment choices depend on the type of liver cancer you
have, test results, and the stage of the cancer. The goal of treatment may be to
cure you, control the cancer, or help ease problems caused by the cancer. Talk with
your healthcare team about your treatment choices, the goals of treatment, and what
the risks and side effects may be.
Types of treatment for cancer are either local or systemic. Local
treatments remove, destroy, or control cancer cells in one area. Surgery and
radiation are local treatments. Systemic treatment is used to destroy or control
cancer cells that may have traveled around your body. When taken by pill or
injection, chemotherapy is a systemic treatment. You may have one treatment or a
combination of treatments.
Liver cancer can be treated with:
Talk with your healthcare providers about your treatment options.
Make a list of questions. Think about the benefits and possible side effects of each
option. Talk about your concerns with your healthcare provider before making a
What are treatment side effects?
Cancer treatment such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and
radiation can damage normal cells. This can cause side effects such as hair loss,
mouth sores, and vomiting.
Talk with your healthcare provider about side effects you might
have and ways to manage them. There may be things you can do and medicines you can
take to help prevent or control side effects.
Coping with liver cancer
Many people feel worried, depressed, and stressed when dealing
with cancer. Getting treatment for cancer can be hard on the mind and body. Keep
talking with your healthcare team about any problems or concerns you have. Work
together to ease the effect of cancer and its symptoms on your daily life.
Here are tips:
Talk with your family or friends.
Ask your healthcare team or social worker for help.
Speak with a counselor.
Talk with a spiritual advisor, such as a minister or
Ask your healthcare team about medicines for depression or
Keep socially active.
Join a cancer support group.
Cancer treatment is also hard on the body. To help yourself stay
healthier, try to:
Eat a healthy diet, with a focus on high-protein foods.
Drink plenty of water, fruit juices, and other liquids.
Keep physically active.
Rest as much as needed.
Talk with your healthcare team about ways to manage
treatment side effects.
Take your medicines as directed by your team.
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Your healthcare provider will talk with you about when to call.
You may be told to call if you have any of the below:
New symptoms or symptoms that get worse
Signs of an infection, such as a fever
Side effects of treatment that affect your daily function or
don’t get better with treatment
Ask your healthcare provider what signs to watch for, and when to
call. Know how to get help after office hours and on weekends and holidays.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare
Know the reason for your visit and what you want to
Before your visit, write down questions you want
Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and
remember what your provider tells you.
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and
any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions
your provider gives you.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how
it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the
results could mean.
Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have
the test or procedure.
If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date,
time, and purpose for that visit.
Know how you can contact your provider if you have